Rachel Horriocks-Birss is an Academic Literacies Developer within the Academic Skills Centre. She’s originally from Prince Edward Island in Canada and now lives in St Andrews, where she graduated in 2019 with a PhD in English. She’s a Renaissance literature nerd and enjoys Munro bagging at the weekend.
What does the role of Academic Literacies Developer mean – what do you do at work? I support students in developing their academic skills such as writing, presenting, and time management, amongst many other things. I teach classes in most Schools in the University, as well as hold one-to-one meetings with individual students.
What is it that gives you job satisfaction? I love the “penny-drop” moment talking to students, the moment where something just clicks and they understand a concept they didn’t before. It’s so satisfying to wrap up a one-to-one consultation and know that the student now has the confidence and the know-how to succeed.
What challenges do you face and how do you deal with them? I meet so many students who think they’re just bad at essays, and that, no matter what they do, they’re always going to be bad at writing. A lot of my work is focussed on building students’ confidence, helping them to see that writing is a skill that anyone can learn. Just because your first essay wasn’t good doesn’t mean you’re rubbish — there are so many tried and true techniques that can help anyone improve.
Tell us the best thing about your work? I love getting to meet students and staff from across the University. My background is in English lit, so it’s been really exciting to learn more about disciplines like Nursing, Education, Law, and Medicine, to name just a few.
And the hardest? This past year has been so hard on everyone, and it’s heart-breaking when students come to me for essay help, but the real problem is that they can’t focus because of a bereavement, or they’ve trying to juggle uni with home-schooling, or lockdown destroyed their motivation… I’ve met so many students struggling with such challenging circumstances and it’s been a real honour to support them or direct them on to further help across the uni.
WORKING DURING A PANDEMIC
How has the pandemic affected what you do? I know the shift to blended learning has been challenging for students, and it’s been a real mindset shift for me, too. While I can’t wait to get back in a classroom, I’ve really enjoyed developing online learning resources. It’s been fun to work on new projects, like a video on Working from Home, our Time Management Bites series, and the Lightning Sessions workshops. I’d never really done any resource development before this year, so the shift to blended learning was a fun challenge.
Have you found things more or less effective in the job that you do? Funnily enough, a lot of my teaching has worked better online! I use various tools that allow students to participate anonymously, so I can ask questions like, “What’s your biggest struggle right now?” and students will tell me honestly. Students are also so much more willing to ask questions online, which helps me tailor my classes so they can be as helpful as possible.
Has there been a particular support to you during this time? My biggest support has got to be my husband, who’s somehow survived sharing a home office with me for the past 500 or so days! At work, though, I’m so thankful for my colleagues in the ASC who have been always ready for a virtual tea and chat. I also can’t say enough to recommend the University counselling service who have been truly invaluable in supporting me through this challenging year.
Is there anything new within the current situation that you hope will continue? I’m so thankful for the growing openness about mental health and the understanding of the way our personal lives impact our studies and our work. I strongly believe that having a good “work-life balance” doesn’t necessarily mean separating the two. Rather, I think it’s really healthy that we’re getting better at recognising how challenges in our work can sometimes be connected to struggles in our personal lives, and vice-versa.
And is there anything particular you’ve missed? I miss actually seeing students. I completely understand there are so many reasons why students might not turn on their webcams, but sometimes online teaching can feel like I’m just a bad radio DJ (complete with terrible jokes!). I’m really excited to teach classes face-to-face again soon.
What do you like most about Dundee uni? I love how friendly everyone is! I only joined the uni two years ago, but immediately I felt right at home.
Any tips for current students? If you need support, get it! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help, and you don’t have to be at the end of your rope before getting support. We love to talk to students at any stage, whether you’ve failed an assignment or you just want to improve your skills.
Favourite spot on campus? I really love the Global Room. It’s open and airy, and it always had free tea available! Definitely my favourite spot for lunch, or just an hour of quiet reading.
Is there, or was there, someone at the University who inspires/inspired you? I’m really inspired by all the brilliant women I’ve met at the university, particularly those who do such an incredible job while also raising a family. The pandemic has really highlighted many of the ways women are still disproportionately responsible for running the home, so it’s been really inspiring to learn from my colleagues about how they care for their families, while still doing such a great job at the University.
How would you describe the University to someone who doesn’t know it? Friendly, diverse, welcoming.
What do you do outside of your work? I’ve loved writing since I was ten years old, so you’ll often find me working away at one of my novel drafts. When I’m not writing, I’m probably out walking somewhere, enjoying Scotland’s incredible landscape. My husband and I are trying to climb all the Munros together, so we’re often out in the hills on the weekend.
Tell us something we don’t know about you? I mentioned this at the beginning of this post, but I grew up on Prince Edward Island in Canada, which is the home of Anne of Green Gables. I used to have long auburn plaits and freckles when I was younger, so I spent most of my childhood pretending to be Anne.
Who would you invite to a dinner party? As a Renaissance lit nerd, I’d have to invite William Shakespeare. I’d also love J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, then Neil Gaiman, Susannah Clarke, Erin Morgenstern, and Emily St John Mandel. Getting to meet so many of my favourite authors, and to hear their conversations with each other, would be fascinating.
Why Dundee? When I finished my PhD at St Andrews, I really wanted a job that would allow me to stay in Scotland, particularly in Fife. This role at Dundee meant I could keep living in a place I loved, while also getting to know a new university and working with a whole new range of people.